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Marietta Pritchard: Two books for spring by three local authors

It’s the words on the page that really matter, but writers also choose how they want to present themselves in their pictures on book jackets. On the back of “Good Prose,” by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, the two authors appear in separate shots, but with their heads tilted at similar angles, their amused expressions suggesting the start of a convivial conversation. Nancy Frazier’s portrait on the dustjacket of “I, Lobster, a Crustacean Odyssey” is bursting with energy and pleasure. She can’t wait to tell you what she’s discovered.

Full disclosure: Nancy is an old friend and colleague. She was my editor and mentor when I was a new writer at the Gazette. In later years, Dick Todd was my editor and colleague at New England Monthly, and Tracy Kidder was a writer and frequent presence at that magazine. All three are area residents, although Nancy has a second home in Waldoboro, Maine. It was on that rocky coast that she became fascinated – no, more like obsessed – with lobsters, and started on the odyssey of the title, seeking evidence of that strange and wonderful creature in all the most likely and unlikely places. Lobsters may be shy beings that prefer the dark of the deep, but Nancy has found them out and has shone her light on them everywhere – in ancient art and literature, in contemporary writing, in popular culture, on key chains and in museums as well as down-home restaurants, celebratory festivals, and fancy cookery. She takes them seriously, considering their possible feelings, their anatomy and physiology, their mating and migrating habits. But she also takes them lightly, enjoying elucidating the ways in which they have been represented and written about. This is a delightful book, reflecting the delight taken by its writer in her discoveries, as one thing, one bit of information or observation leads to the next. Here, for instance is the beginning of a section titled “Weird Medicine” in a chapter titled “SF: Are We All Lobsters Yet?” “Science fiction is not only about outer space. It includes everything from brain surgery to robotic inventions. And when lobsters appear, it is not necessarily they who are the deviants, monsters or caricatures. Sometimes the human being is the villain, as is the case with the evil doctor in the next science fiction tale.” Accompanying Nancy on the twists and turns of her travels through time and space in search of the essence of lobster is, as the saying goes, a real trip.

Kidder and Todd’s “Good Prose,” is subtitled “The Art of Nonfiction, Stories and Advice from a Lifetime of Writing and Editing,” which may sound like heavy-duty stuff, but take a clue from those writers’ portraits. This is a running conversation between two old friends, the ball tossed back and forth between them as they write about their separate and mutual experience of dealing with words – juggling, prodding and deleting them. I found more reassurance than advice in this book. Here is Kidder, for instance, describing his “process” after gathering material for his book, “House.” He retires to his office to try to make sense of it, much as other nonfiction writers do: “We sit at desks in our offices, apart from the world, gazing at those noteboks stacked on our tables, hoping there are stories in them, but once again unsure.” From his side, Todd tells of some of the trials of an editor’s life – some of it in dealing with Kidder’s writing. At the same time he also offers some good, typically witty warnings about, the “familiar rules about writing,” which, he says are “dangerous if taken literally.” Take the mandate to avoid the verb “to be,” for instance. “The verb ‘to be’ and the passive voice are unfairly maligned,” writes Todd. “God invented both for a reason. Just turn to the Bible: ‘In the beginning was the word, … and the word was God.’ No one would accuse that verb of weakness.” Perhaps the best thing about this book for me are the samples of good writing. In the first eight pages, I’m reminded of memorable bits from “Moby-Dick,” from Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” from Nabokov’s “Speak Memory” and from Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” – a pretty good reading list for the spring.

Marietta Pritchard can be reached at mppritchard@comcast.net

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